Should Video Game Companies Dialogue with Fans?

I’m leaning toward yes but I’m still on the fence. A “yes” implies that fans should have a say in what happens in video games, and that makes video game developers something like clients. It implies that video games should first and foremost be a commodity.

And let’s face it, most of the time, they are. They have to be. Companies need to make money to hire qualified staff to put out fantastic content, the type that makes us eager to play. And if we appreciate that content, we need to be willing to feed the cycle by paying for our games. I get that.

But I also like to think of some games as art — the type of art that the public can’t anticipate or create. Some of the best works of art are the ones that surprise us. Sometimes they’re the moving plays and books with tragic endings that I might never be bold enough to write. Had an optimistic fan been able to rewrite a tragedy, would he have given it a comedic ending that would have ruined it as art? So if games are art, where should the line be drawn when it comes to audience participation in game development?

BioWare’s Reaction to Mass Effect 3: So Video Games Are Art?

Seeing the crew’s reactions in ME3‘s Extended Cut doesn’t change the ending, but it adds emotional impact and closure.

That is one of the problems with the controversial Mass Effect 3 ending. No matter what choices we made, after the long, arduous, often heart-wrenching campaign that spanned 3 games and several years, our Commander Shepards die. There’s no way around it (unless you squint really hard with your imagination and believe in that teaser breath, if you got it). Of course, it isn’t just dying, it’s why our Shepards die. I won’t get into that now, but you can read the best analysis of the ending ever on The Writer’s Block blog here.

In the midst of all the rage comments and hate mail, BioWare’s hard-working staff responded. They said so on the forums, and then they created the Extended Cut DLC. This added some closure to the ending of the game, appeasing fans who needed to understand how the ME universe was affected by their final decision.

Still, BioWare did not change the ending. As marketing manager Derek Larke explained on forums:

Though we remain committed and are proud of the artistic choices we made in the main game, we are aware that there are some fans who would like more closure to Mass Effect 3. The goal of the DLC is not to provide a new ending to the game, rather to offer fans additional context and answers to the end of Commander Shepard’s story.

So BioWare says its team had an artistic vision, and the Mass Effect 3 ending was part of it. There can be no alternative finale. Had BioWare completely rewritten the ME3 ending, fans would have triumphed, which would have been nice, in a way. It would have been comforting to know that BioWare listens to us and takes us seriously, that it can’t get away with insulting endings.

But if BioWare had done that, it would have effectively made an admission that it exists to please fans rather than to stay true to its artistic vision. To me, placating every disgruntled so-called fan is not what a video game company should be about. That’s why I applaud BioWare for sticking to its ending, regardless of my feelings about it.

Art Might Be Exactly What Fans Want

Diablo III’s story has some laughable “surprise” betrayals. This picture isn’t really about them.

Cheap endings aside, some game series are just going downhill. Game companies that once produced fun, meaningful games now seem to push out bare content instead of quality. An example is Diablo III, which disappointed after the first two games blew many people away. You can read a (forum) letter to Blizzard here that details some problems with Diablo III and ends with what must be a plaintive sigh: “Blizzard, if you want players to stick around and enjoy your game, how about implementing changes that players actually want.”

The suggestions and complaints from fans are rarely about anything trivial (aside from a few quips about lame graphics, I suppose). Usually they’re about the meat of the games: uncustomizable characters, combat options, in-game decisions. Fans are smart, and we want our intelligence rewarded with quality. As we saw with the Mass Effect 3 ending, when a game gives us in-game decisions, we want to feel that they’re relevant. We want the ending to reflect what we put into the game. We want art.

Endless Space: A Community-Made Game?

What amazes me is that one company succeeded in making an astounding space sim based largely — and I mean very largely — on community input.

It’s called Endless Space, a streamlined 4X strategy game that lets players customize their characters from a database of hundreds of characteristics, which influence how you interact with the in-game universe.

But as I said, what’s most unique about the game is its development. The company that made the game, Amplitude Studios, published all of its development documents on the forums and invited suggestions. A beta community of 20,000 players tested the game and voted on polls during the development process. The result? A highly-customizable, gorgeous game that’s addictively fun to play.

Creative director Romain de Waubert explained to IGN that it’s important for a game company to show that they listen: “It’s not honest to say, ‘We’ll talk to you,’ but then nothing happens because we just do whatever we want.”

So Mass Effect 3 doesn’t fall into this category, because BioWare created its game in its studios and offices without public input. That’s one way to make a game. But Amplitude Studios aimed to do something vastly different from the very start, and it worked. The result of all of this community input was a streamlined game built to please its audience. And in a way, isn’t that what a game should be?

How Game Companies Are Addressing Complaints

DA2 is easy to play… until you get to the super tedious boss fights.

BioWare also got a lot of flak for the disappointing Dragon Age 2, and its response has been to address its mistakes. At New York Comic Con last year, David Gaider and Mike Laidlaw revealed some of the improvements they’re making in Dragon Age 3, based largely on fans’ complaints about DA2, such as the lack of armor customization and in-game choices with consequences. Fans know when game companies are making shortcuts, and for a company to address such issues is heartening. (Of course, BioWare’s talk will only really mean something if DA3 truly succeeds in “fixing” some of DA2’s problems.)

Addressing complaints about Diablo III, Blizzard has also admitted mistakes. Community manager Bashiok has essentially stated that the gameplay and looting can become tedious after a while, saying that “there needs to be something else that keeps people engaged, and we know it’s not there right now.” But he also claims that Diablo is not World of Warcraft. It’s not meant to be.

It’s similar to BioWare’s reaction to the ME3 ending, I suppose. No real apologies, but an admission that there is potential for growth. There’s room for an extended cut. There’s a place for more relevant gameplay leading to an end-game with impact. There’s room for more customization and in-game choices that truly mean something.

But I Want to Be Surprised

Of course, those are all game elements that have been done right many times, and often in fresh ways. I’m sure every gamer can think of a video game that utterly surprised him with something new. I can think of dialogue from Final Fantasy XII, characters from Mass Effect, GLaDOS’s jokes from Portal, the artwork of Limbo, the wild landscapes of Skyrim… Those are all things that impressed me, and all the more so because they took me by surprise.

I guess that makes me a consumer. I’ll admit, it would be a dream come true to work for a video game company someday, penning quests and codex entries and characters. But as a video game fan, I also love being on this side of the industry: a blind but enthusiastic player who enjoys new content I never saw coming.

Sure, a dialogue with fans might help game companies improve sometimes. But I also trust that they’re staffed with professionals, and when it comes down to it, most companies should still make games on their own terms. It seems that’s the only way companies can impress us with what they’re capable of accomplishing. Because every once in a while, they gift us something so innovative and exciting, we never could have anticipated it.

— Ashley

16 thoughts on “Should Video Game Companies Dialogue with Fans?”

  1. One of the issues for game developers is how much their playerbase invests in the game in terms of time and “identity”. That’s something the brand works hard to acquire and not something they want to lose. Personally, a less than satisfying ending to a game is not sure a big deal if the journey to get there is good. But the ending does matter to a story. Thanks for the promo to endless space – will have to check that out.

    1. That’s true. And it bugs me when players turn their backs on companies completely, writing them off for making one game they didn’t like absolutely everything about. It seems like gamers are very fickle these days, so it makes sense that that’s a major concern for game developers.

      And yes, I agree that a great journey can make up for a poor ending!

  2. The line between artistic integrity and using feedback from fans to shape a game is tricky at best. The infamous Mass Effect 3 ending debacle sheds light on this matter. I’m of the same opinion as you. Game developers should have the right to adhere to what they believe is best for their game, but at the same time you shouldn’t invite fan feedback, insist you are listening to what they’d like to see in a game, and then turn around and say, “Screw you all. Your opinions are meaningless.”

    The fans for Mass Effect got a lot of flack for being “whiners,” but those who voiced constructive criticism about the game were right in their opinions when it came to the ending’s shortcomings. The fact that lots of fans kept coming back to Casey Hudson’s quote about the ending not being, “A, B, C choices” during the game’s development stages, turns out to be exactly what the ending is. It turned out really bad in Hudson’s case when his own words came back to haunt him, and he basically kind of skirts around the fact that he said it in the first place. If anything, he really shouldn’t have made promises he couldn’t keep. Or at least acknowledge it by saying yes I did say that, I’m sorry I misled everyone, but ultimately things have changed during the development process and this is what made most sense on our end.

    So I think it comes down to there being a right balance between the two. Game developers should still control the final product of the game, but at the very least hear what the fans have to say and decide which majority feedback they want to use or don’t use. Great post again! :)

    1. Yeah, good point. Really, one of the most dangerous things for a game developer to do is start making promises. I appreciate that with DA3, etc., because it’s nice to know that companies are listening and want to interact with the fans, improve on “mistakes,” etc. But if a game company wants to stay quiet and surprise us, that’s fine by me too… especially if the alternative is making promises that aren’t kept.

      I totally agree with you that it’s all about finding a balance. You summed it up well: “Game developers should still control the final product of the game, but at the very least hear what the fans have to say and decide which majority feedback they want to use or don’t use.” I like what Amplitude Studios did with Endless Space. It’s a really novel idea, but I certainly don’t want every game to have that much community involvement. Incorporating just the truly useful ideas — like you said, it has to be constructive criticism — seems best.

      1. Yeah, I’m not sure if I like the idea of a community controlling every aspect of a game. We play the games, but we aren’t game developers. There is a difference. Fans can come up with great ideas, but they can sometimes think of bad ones too. Like, I tell a developer on a forum that I think their game should have a flying dragon who can do handstands and read minds, a developer should actually listen to me, make it happen, and put in their game? Absolutely not. Like you said, it’s great that the developers of Endless Space want to involve the community in shaping their game, but they still have the final say. They create the game, and we play it. As developers who make something, it’s still their vision. We are invited to take part in it, and that’s it. I think we should leave it up to the professionals to drive the development of a game. What some may think is a great idea is actually a terrible one upon execution. I’m not saying developers always come up with great ideas, but there has to be a limit to what fans are allowed to control.

        For Mass Effect 3, I was disappointed by the ending, but I still enjoyed the game. I’m not going to crucify them for one bad ending, but the extended cut at least gave us the character closure. This is what I wanted the most from the ending that the original didn’t deliver well enough, but the extended cut passed with flying colors.

  3. I agree that a company shouldn’t ask for input and then ignore it, but first and foremost I’m of the view that we should respect a developers vision. Gamers largely acted as though the ending of Mass Effect was some sort of “betrayal”, but really, *who betrayed whom?* Other than Dragon Age 2, can we not agree that BioWare has an uncommonly good track record? And yet with one – evidently debatable – faux-pas, we bloody well crucified them. If anyone betrayed anyone, we gamers are the cuthroats. (What follows is not directed at ANYONE, it’s just the accumulation of months of digging through forums. So sorry if this gets ranty / you feel targetted…)

    I’ve spent weeks going over arguments and short of quoting Hudson, very few of them hold up or are even reasonable. If you truly expected a *unique* ending to your playthrough, do the math: the amount of endings would go up exponentially with every decision in every game. Now, it would be incredibly inconvenient for BioWare to do all that work because, through a bell-curve distribution, the majority of people would *still* likely fall within the same few decisions; it just isn’t worth the development time and cost to provide an animation for every single contingency when most would only see a few. They pulled a bit of a Molyneux on us, but let’s be reasonable: it just couldn’t happen.

    But here’s a greater issue i haven’t heard anyone address: what if there had been NO choice? We were mad that our choices were limited, but imagine if BioWare had simply made the game scan our saves and decide for us. What if there had been no choice, and merely a consequence of our decisions? There’s no way to know now, but I imagine it would have been an uproar equal to, if not greater than, the one we already have. We were mad at being forced to chose, but tell me how you would have felt if choice had been completely stripped away? You’d probably be REALLY mad at it, or feel detached and powerless at the end, and subsequently disappointed in how immaterial you were – as a player – to the finale. With that in mind, we must realize that, as an overall gameplay mechanic, there can be no alternative: the game has to be programmed one way of two ways: the user decides, or the game decides for the user. Those are the only possibilities (if it isn’t outright scripted).

    People like to say that they’re mad at an ABC ending, but would an ABCDEFGH ending have been better? Again, that would be a massive pain to program and, in terms of delivery, would be dumb as hell, lol.  If that DID satisfy people, it would be an admission that it is not the mechanic that upset people, but rather the *available* choices, and then it becomes a story issue again. And having no choice all would have been met with furor and – more generally – have conflicted with how the rest of the series works; every game ended in such a way, why did we expect different? 

    The most cringe-worthy argument is that any if the ending causes Shepard to die, it must be bad. If you somehow believe that heroes can simply never die, you have no place offering commentary on how the direction of a story should go, lol. Would it have been nice to have more situations in which he lives? Absolutely. But saying that the death of the protagonist is some sort of proof that the game is flawed is narrow-minded and shallow; Mass Effect 1 made it clear that there would be sacrifices, so if you thought the ending to such a trilogy would be all rainbows and puppies and Shepard would somehow never have to face such a test, well, you really got the wrong impression. If no one died – squad-mate or yourself – not only would it have been lame storytelling and saccharine-sweet, there would be no closure; you’d expect more from Shepard. Would fans have let Shepard retire and sip tropical drinks on a beach with Garrus? No, we’d pester BioWare for more games; best to tie off loose ends. 

    My point is that there is absolutely NO WAY to have satisfied people’s expectations of this game.  BioWare was damned if they did, damned if they didn’t. People want things that cannot coexist:  control of someone else’s work, and storytelling. If you reject the act of choosing the end, you must accept Bioware’s story. If you reject Bioware’s story, you must accept that, realistically, only so much control can be given to you to alter it. Equally, that control must present itself in a sufficiently obvious manner as to not be confused with a situation where you have no choice at all; if you can’t perceive alternatives, you can’t perceive a choice, either. Subtlety is not an option. 

    As for Hudson’s quote, he’s technically correct: if you have a low galactic readiness level (really, really low), Earth can be destroyed, damaged, or fine. Those subvariants of the endings aren’t up to you at that point, so it’s kind of like A1, A2, A3, B1, B2, etc. Also, the extended ending actually does add a whole new, and in my opinion, amazing ending: giving up, losing, and becoming part of the cycle…

    1. I agree about respecting game developers, letting them make games on their own terms. It’s interesting what you said about how we have to choose between storytelling and controlling someone else’s work, and we can’t really have both at once. I hadn’t thought of it quite like that.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the ME3 ending. You’re right that even in ME1, we saw that sacrifices would have to be made, people would die, and this whole war was much bigger than just one person. So in that sense, having Shepard die was a truly fitting conclusion. I really disliked the ending options that were given — I didn’t want more choices period, I wanted more relevant options presented with more subtlety — but I can see what the writers did, almost foreshadowing different endings in each game with Saren in ME1, TIM in ME2 and Anderson in ME3. Mostly what I (and a lot of other players) needed was closure, which the Extended Cut provided. I totally agree with you that the extended ending is really beautiful. It was moving to see the consequences of that final choice, and also to get some closure with the squad, etc.

      Also, I was comparing it to the Dragon Age: Origins ending the other day, thinking about how DA:O has the “ultimate sacrifice” ending — which was my absolute favorite — but it also gives the option to live. Personally, I like an epic story that ends in a heroic death, but I’m weak and always really tempted to choose the But-I-want-to-live!!! ending at least one time, when given the option. I guess that’s what makes tragic stories so beautiful. They can only really break your heart or have that amazing emotional impact if you can’t control them. When I chose the Ultimate Sacrifice ending in DA:O, it felt epic all right, but I felt much more sadness with the ME3 ending and with the endings of many films and books I’ve read that end in death.

      What really interests me is how video game players feel entitled to make complaints and demand different endings. You wouldn’t demand that of an author or filmmaker or any other creative person, but for some reason players feel “betrayed” by game companies very easily. It’s strange, and I’m not sure if it’s a good thing or a bad thing. It could be a very poisonous thing if it gets out of hand, which it sort of did with ME3, I think.

      1. Clearly I feel the same way about it getting out of hand, lol; my post got rant-ier than I expected. I actually went to bed feeling bad and thinking “wow, I get really wound up by that controversy”…

        What I find interesting and, again, that I’ve heard no one else mention, is that Shepard only survives in the most selfish of endings :P The cost of Shepard living is not just being extremely well prepared, but choosing to kill EDI, the Geth (if you even got them that far), and the Reapers (which – depending on your compassion and interpretation of the ending – are victims as well). It also means you’ve probably slowed down the Quarian recovery substantially. This begs the question: what have you been fighting for, really? Survival or permanent freedom from the Reaping? Because your survival comes at an extremely high cost, sacrificing others in your stead with no guarantees for the future. That’s pretty damn Renegade in my book, and makes everything you’ve ever said to EDI, Legion, and the Geth a lie: they are secondary to organics. 

        The way they broke down the ending was pretty ham-fisted, but I can’t think of any other way to have done it. Should the ending have been a Paragon / Renagade in-dialogue choice while chatting it up with the Star Child? That doesn’t seem deliberate enough; manually making the choice carried more weight. Should it have been a series of subtle decisions to tailor the ending to your preferences? Once again you’re either making lame in-dialogue choices or lame manual choices. And if they’re TOO subtle, you may accidentally chose something that ticks you the hell off, lol. I guess they could have done it like the end of ME2: the right combination will – eventually – prevail, but may require some restarting. 

        Enh. I guess overall I feel that a happy ending without sacrifice is just inappropriate for the overall tone and direction of this particular story. I agree with what you said: having no control over the protagonist’s death is heart-wrenching in a wonderful way. And that’s how I felt, because MY Shepard could never accept sacrifing so many with the Renegade option; it WASN’T an option. The choice was clear: I had to die.

        I don’t know where gamers get off acting all betrayed: you’re a paying customer, not a friend, and your involvement in shaping the series only goes as far as its creators, BioWare, allows you. You don’t have any rights or any claims to anything, as far as I’m concerned. 

        People love to talk about “the community”, and what “the community” wants, but the bottom line is that this isn’t a democracy. You’re playing in Bioware’s world, not your own. Maybe it’s because BioWare gives us the illusion of power throughout their games that we feel we have a right to say how they should go, but really, we don’t.  

        BioWare gives us wonderful experiences, and we PAY them for it. That is the true nature of our relationship. I’m sorry if people forget that, but this is a business. Dragon Age 2 illustrates the situation well; community feedback isn’t why they went to back the community for Dragon Age 3: it’s because sales BOMBED, lolol.  Feedback is the logic behind declining or rising sales.  In that sense, what they did makes me very sad: Dragon Age 3 will be, 100%, pandering to the audience. 

        If people are going to protest the game, return it, drive it’s Amazon and metacritic rating down in order to drop sales, they can also drop the pretext that they’re fans: at that point you are, as you said, a client. You don’t care what the developer has to say, you don’t care about their ideas, and you don’t care about community or vision or art: you want it *your way* or god help you BioWare.

        If that becomes the norm, then there will truly be no more artistic integrity in games, and it will be both our faults: the industry’s for caving in to threats, and ours for issuing them. 

        P.S sorry these are so long, lol!

  4. Avoiding the ME3 debate since I just posted on Xandurse’s blog… I think that perhaps with Kickstarter we are seeing a new model where players are engaged with the company making a game and that can lead to some amazing results. Working with a community of gamers can lead to some pretty amazing things. However, I think the problem with that is when it comes time to discuss narrative. Creating a narrative within a community would probably be hell. So when deciding on a narrative it seems to me like that is one of the things that should potentially remain in developer control. Gamers seem to be good at giving great constructive feedback about mechanics/art/gameplay; but I’m not sure narrative is something that so many people would be able to agree on. As Xandurse pointed out, Bioware was pretty much screwed with the ME3 ending, no matter what they did there would have been complaints from someone. I think more than anything that shows us how complex and different player inspired narratives can be, but also how having all of those narratives would be completely implausible. So yes, I think there should be a dialogue between gamers and developers, but I think that certain things (like narrative) should be primarily left in the hands of the developers.

    1. That’s a really good way to look at it. I’d never really made that distinction before, but I think you nailed it! Narrative is the most artistic and subjective part of a game, and so it’s best left in the hand of professional storytellers. Players making suggestions (or criticisms) about gameplay seems arguably more reasonable, as much of that has to do with enjoying the game and the game being accessible to the audience. So really, the audience is the authority there — but not with the narrative.

      Now that all this debate has shuffled my opinions in order, I wish I could rewrite my post to express my new thoughts… but I guess that’s what’s great about debating in the comments section! =)

      1. I may still turn this into a blog post. If you’d really like to express new thoughts it could be a collaborative endeavor?

        1. Oh that’s a nice idea. If you do end up blogging about this, I’d be happy to write a section for it, though I think your thoughts helped me figure out my own! =)

          Actually I just found an interesting article about this topic, but looking at it from the industry side of things, discussing how the industry sort of “rewards” negative feedback much more than positive — really interesting! That could be part of a post, since it’s a fresh perspective on all of this.

  5. Hey Ashley, nice article but i don’t totally agree with you on the Mass Effect ending. Whatever their artistic vision may be, BioWare owes its fans big time for supporting their games for so many years. The thing is, fans like me got really attached to the game and the character. Whether it was shepard or miranda or Rex, you have a special spot for these guys. And when you end a trilogy and say this is it, it should be the good guy who wins. This is just a natural expectation. As the gamer, you want to win at the end of the day and know what happened to the characters you love. Imagine the harry potter franchise ending with harry dying or something like that. There would be mass outrage over such an ending. Why, because fans are emotionally attached to a character. Similarly, Mass Effect is a story and BioWare are the authors, so they are responsible to provide closure.

    1. Thanks for the comment! Yeah, I think a lot of people wanted a happy ending. I would have liked one too, as I was very attached to the characters. But I don’t think that BioWare owes its fans a happy ending, especially since the ME series includes so many sacrifices and so many character deaths. It’s an epic story that’s bigger than one person — even Shepard. That’s the way I looked at it, anyway.

      It’s interesting that you compared it to Harry Potter, because that does seem like a fair comparison. Some of the greatest stories in history have been tragedies, but there’s something about a big series that makes us want a happy ending even more. We’ve stuck it out with these characters for so long, it would be fantastic to have a huge pay-off and be able to run off with our in-game love interests for a well-earned retirement! But I don’t know, I think if that had happened, some people might have complained that it was a cheap ending. Happy or sad, I just wanted an ending that felt relevant to the series as a whole and provided closure. I think the Extended Cut helped with that.

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